Detroit at the Guildhall School review ****

Detroit

Guildhall School, Milton Court Theatre, 5th February 2019

The Tourist has remarked before on the benefits of checking out the productions staged at Britain’s major theatre schools. Excellent actors and creatives destined to to go on to greater things, usually professional directors, interesting repertoire, often first revivals of recent lauded plays, and usually a bargain, no more than a tenner in most cases. Right now a quick perusal shows a production of Orca by Matt Grinter at the Bristol Old Vic, one of my top ten plays of 2016, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Central School opposite the Hampstead Theatre, similarly a top tenner in 2017, Woman and Scarecrow by Irish dramatist Marina Carr at RADA, Pomona by Alistair McDowall, (who should turn up with a new play at the Royal Court soonish), which I contrived to miss at both the Orange Tree and the National, a Doctor Faustus at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Boy at the Mountview Academy, a success a few years ago at the Almeida, a production of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, which you might know from the TV adaptation, at the Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre, the adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s classic The Suicide by Suhayla El-Bushra, which I loved at the National in 2016, and man of the moment Martin Crimp’s shocker Attempts On Her Life at the Guildford School.

Not bad eh. I strongly suggest you follow what they are up to if you love theatre. Makes a change from spunking £60 or £70 on a West End or NT turkey.

So this is how I came to see Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Ms D’Amour was, and still, is something of a bright young thing in US theatre, and now interdisciplinary performance, (for which read site specific extravaganza), circles, with a long association with the Steppenwolf Company. Detroit was a Pulitzer finalist and it is pretty easy to see why. It focuses on the unravelling of the American Dream (as do, I loosely estimate, 50% of all US plays, with the other 50% centred on dysfunctional families), but with a twist as it is set, metaphorically at least, in the suburban sprawl of Detroit, colonised, like so many American cities by whites fleeing the centre in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around half of all Americans live in suburbs apparently.

Anyway all is not well in this particular street. The marriage of Mary (Poppy Gilbert) and Ben (Oli Higginson) is under pressure. Ben has been made redundant from his job at the bank but claims to be seizing the opportunity to strike out on his own as a financial adviser by setting up a website, armed with self-help homilies. Neurotic paralegal Mary is all about appearances and is a bit too fond of the drink. Things seem to take a turn for the better when younger couple Kenny (Nick Apostolina) and Sharon (Laurel Waghorn) move in. They come with an admitted past of drug abuse but our now clean, working in a warehouse and a call centre and, whilst they haven’t much in the way of bucks, they appear excitingly YOLO’ish and curious to make friends. Cue a round of BBQs in their respective backyards. Eventually they all get sh*tfaced and things, shall we say, get a little out of hand. The truth, and a blast of nostalgia, emerges when Kenny’s uncle Frank (Wyatt Martin) pays a visit.

Ms D’Amour’s dialogue is vibrant and dynamic, the characters are interesting and well matched, the plot is sufficiently engaging and the themes it examines are never oversold. It resembles a kind of modernised, reversed, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is no bad thing. It doesn’t have the range, acerbity, humour or pain of Albee’s classic but in its odd, twitchy, serendipitous way it manages to make the mundane come to life on the stage. It asks for performances from the four leads beyond the naturalistic, but not lurching into the exaggerated, which director Charlotte Westenra grasped, and the set design of Charlie Cridlan, albeit with a little man-handling from cast and SMs, did the job.

At the end of the day I guess the point is that all four of them are living a lie, unhappy with their lot, and looking for a way to escape. A satire on precarious middle-class America, the shattering of dreams, and the urge to connect in misfortune, in an increasingly uncertain world. Worked for me. Especially with some fine performances. Poppy Gilbert was a particular delight, though Mary’s unravelling gave her plenty of opportunity to shine. Oli Higginson brought an air of vulnerability to Ben, Nick Apostolina made sure we saw the chip on Kenny’s shoulder and Laurel Waghorn revealed Sharon’s emotional, if not intellectual, intelligence.

Next up from the School an Orestes. Reworked. Like we would ever get a literal translation from Ancient Greek.

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